AOC Is Right Not to Celebrate Yitzhak Rabin’s Legacy

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez displayed uncommon courage in withdrawing from an event celebrating Yitzhak Rabin, the late Israeli leader who instructed soldiers to break the bones of Palestinian demonstrators. It’s another sign that the tide is turning against defenders of Israel’s human rights abuses.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks during a town hall in Washington, DC, 2019. (Zach Gibson / Getty Images)

On Friday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) withdrew her planned participation in an event sponsored by Americans for Peace Now to commemorate former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. She did so after hearing criticisms and concerns raised by Palestinians and Palestinian rights organizations, who spoke up against the whitewashing of Rabin’s politics, and the rehabilitation of a “peace process” that only further entrenched Israeli domination.

Within a twenty-four-hour period, Ocasio-Cortez sought out input from Palestinians and Jewish organizations, and those conversations factored into her decision to change course. That AOC took her cues from Palestinians instead of pro-Israel voices is a testament to the importance of having elected officials who are accountable to progressive movements. Her actions show a willingness to challenge not only the ultra-right policies of Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, but also liberal Zionists, who have canonized Rabin as “an Israeli patriot killed for trying to make peace.”

She’s faced the predictable liberal backlash since, complete with the requisite accusations of anti-semitism, along with a bonus lecture from Joe Biden himself, who told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “She could have rejected the invitation for any number of reasons. But if she agrees and then pulls out, she’s creating problems for her own party.”

Showing integrity, humility, and compassion is a rarity on Capitol Hill, especially when it comes to Palestine. Discussing Palestinian rights has, until recently, been a third rail in US politics. The media and lobbying groups have silenced legitimate discussion and criticism of the Israeli state for decades. But a lot has changed in the last five years. As the New York Times recently admitted: “Politicians speaking on Israel-Palestine used to worry primarily about attacks from pro-Israel media and activist groups; now progressives are starting to feel some heat from the pro-Palestinian side.”

In truth, the shrill response to AOC’s withdrawal from the commemoration is less about Rabin, and more about, as Yousef Munayyer argued, “losing control of a narrative that erases Palestinians.” How else can we understand such a heavy-handed response to withdrawing from an event of negligible distinction? But it’s worth revisiting Rabin’s record nonetheless, as against the accepted liberal narrative, which falsely claims the moral high ground based on this mythology.

Yitzhak Rabin Was No Peacemaker

Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated twenty-five years ago by an Israeli right-wing extremist who rejected his leading role in the so-called “peace process” between Israel and Palestine. Rabin’s legacy has since been framed by the conditions of his death, as a “general turned peacemaker.”

For people unfamiliar with Israeli politics, the story that Yitzhak Rabin represented the liberal wing of the Israeli state, which did everything it could to achieve peace, seems plausible. He even received a Nobel Peace Prize. But Rabin’s record was as consistent as it was brutal, beginning with Israel’s establishment in 1948.

As an officer in the army, he led “Operation Danny” to capture Ramla and Lydda. In what became known as the Lydda death march, tens of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from those Palestinian villages. The military order signed by Rabin, the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) reported, read: “The inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly, without regard to age.”

In his memoirs, which were censored by Israel but leaked to the New York Times in 1979, Rabin recalled a conversation he had with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, regarding the fate of the Palestinians of Lydd and Ramla, writing: “We walked outside, Ben-Gurion accompanying us. [Commander Yigal] Allon repeated his question, ‘What is to be done with the Palestinian population?’ Ben-Gurion waved his hand in a gesture which said ‘Drive them out!’… I agreed that it was essential to drive the inhabitants out.”

As the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, Rabin led the 1967 war, which cemented Israel’s territorial ambitions to include the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, and whose outcome subjugated a million Palestinians to military occupation. Rabin played a critical and calculated role in falsely portraying what was an ambitious war of aggression as a defensive action. “Let’s be honest with ourselves,” he argued at the time, “first we will attack Egypt; then we will also attack Syria and Jordan.”

Rabin first became prime minister in 1974. As the movement to end apartheid in South Africa was growing around the world, Rabin worked with the South African regime to build nuclear weapons and establish a “Joint Secretariat for Political and Psychological Warfare.”

Perhaps most famously, Rabin served as minister of defense during the first Palestinian intifada of the 1980s, which was characterized by nonviolent mass protests, strikes, and civil disobedience. He encouraged “force, might, beatings” to suppress protesters, and developed what became popularly known as the “broken bones” policy, in which Israeli soldiers were instructed to “break the bones” of Palestinian demonstrators. Al Jazeera interviewed Palestinians who were involved in the intifada at that time.

On February 26, 1988, 17-year-old Wael Joudeh and his cousin Osamah were returning home from grazing their sheep when they noticed a group of Israeli soldiers following them back to their village, east of Nablus. As the soldiers caught up with them, they began beating them and for a period of 30 minutes, Israeli forces used stones to break their bones …

“At first, one of the soldiers took off his military hard-hat and started pounding it on my head until I fell to the ground. He then proceeded to beat me uncontrollably,” Wael told Al Jazeera. “Then he lifted me up, and shoved his helmet towards my face and shouted out what was written on it,” he recalled. “I was born to kill Palestinians,” the soldier screamed at Wael. “One of them twisted my arm against my back, while another started pounding my wrist with a stone, attempting to break my hand completely,” he said.

Within the first two years of the Intifada, almost 30,000 children required medical treatment for injuries caused by beatings from Israeli soldiers. At the same time, as Al Jazeera noted, a policy of collective punishment was put in place, in which more than 175,000 Palestinians were arrested and 2,000 homes were demolished.

The “Peace Process” Was Never About Peace

Rabin returned as the prime minister in 1992, and the following year he led the Israeli state to participate in the Oslo Accords. Rabin was widely applauded for being an ex-general who showed a flexible pragmatism towards the enemy. At the time, the newspaper of record, the New York Times, celebrated his willingness to shake hands “with the devil himself, the abhorred chairman of the P.L.O. [Palestine Liberation Organization], Yasir Arafat.”

The Oslo Accords were never about reaching a compromise, let alone a just peace. Israel entered into bilateral negotiations with the PLO in order to defuse and control Palestinian resistance, remake their public image to the world, and, most importantly, to codify and entrench the power imbalance on the ground.

Rabin himself was committed to an exclusivist Jewish state to the end, and had no sudden change of heart. Only a year earlier he had declared that Gaza should “sink into the sea.” In the lead-up to Oslo he deported about four hundred Hamas militants to Lebanon, sealed off the West Bank, and deployed heavy airstrikes in southern Lebanon. As the New York Times explained: “Israelis tend to say that they trust Mr. Rabin and count on him not to sell them out to the Arabs.”

The framework of the Oslo Accords set in motion decades of failed negotiations and continued subjugation. The Palestinians formally recognized “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.” In return, Rabin’s government neither accepted the goal of a Palestinian state, nor offered guarantees that the settlement construction would stop. The “Declaration of Principles” did not mention the word “occupation.”

Instead of a Palestinian state, the Oslo Accords offered a limited autonomy, under the direction of a newly created Palestinian Authority. Israel maintained its control over borders, airspace, and waters. Behind the fig leaf of a “peace process,” Israel continued to expand illegal settlements, tightened curfews and closures, and debilitated the Palestinian economy.

As the IMEU explains: “Today Palestinians live in a series of isolated ghettos in the occupied territories, surrounded by Israeli walls, military checkpoints, and bases, and settlements, under a system of racial segregation, discrimination, and apartheid, all based on the Oslo Accords.”

A Different Kind of Politics

Journalist Alex Kane is absolutely right to conclude that AOC’s withdrawal from the Rabin memorial reflects a deeper shift within the US progressive left and within the halls of Congress. “Five years ago,” he writes, “it would have been inconceivable for a U.S. politician to bow to pressure from the left, let alone Palestinian activists, to pull out of an event celebrating an Israeli leader. Today, however, the Palestinian rights movement can count on a small bloc of progressive lawmakers who are backing their cause and authoring legislation to condition U.S. military aid to Israel.”

The Palestinian movement has been critical in effecting a sea change of public opinion regarding Israel and Palestine. This has created an environment where democratic socialists in office, who are responsive to constituents and grassroots activists, can use their position to strengthen and embolden those voices, and to bring the reality of Palestine into the mainstream political conversation.

Sumaya Awad, director of strategy for Adalah Justice Project, explained the significance of AOC’s actions to Jacobin in this way:

It’s rare to see a member of Congress take any social-justice cause seriously, let alone Palestinian liberation, that doesn’t further the goals of lobbying groups or wealthy constituents. Elected representatives often pay lip service to grassroots movements, like the one taking the streets of American cities today demanding that we rethink our celebration of racist figures who have been lionized as heroes. By canceling her appearance at an event honoring a colonial military commander, AOC is putting this principle into practice. There is no doubt that this a positive step forward in making Palestinian voices heard where they are usually silenced. Now we need more of this.

AOC is right: “foreign policy is also domestic policy.” And the strategy of simultaneously building grassroots power and electoral power is going a long way toward achieving that goal.